Passion for competition has Paralympic champ Richard Peter changing courts

·5 min read
After a long career in wheelchair basketball, Peter turned to para-badminton in 2016, winning a bronze medal in doubles at the 2019 Pan Am Games.  (Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee - image credit)
After a long career in wheelchair basketball, Peter turned to para-badminton in 2016, winning a bronze medal in doubles at the 2019 Pan Am Games. (Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee - image credit)

At 43 years old and with three Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair basketball on his resume, Richard Peter chose a new challenge in 2016.

With the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics scheduled to be the debut of para-badminton, Peter decided to try to reach the podium in a sport as new to him as to the Games.

His mission seemed on track when he and partner Bernard Lapointe won a bronze in men's doubles at the 2019 Parapan Games in Lima, Peru. However, their goal to qualify for Tokyo was, like so much of the world, thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pair have had to put that dream on hold.

But for someone who has always played for the love of sport, the discovery of a new athletic passion has been almost as much of a win as another Paralympic medal.

Peter was born in the Cowichan Tribe community of Duncan in British Columbia, and suffered a spinal cord injury in a bus accident at the age of four. Peter wasn't even aware of wheelchair sports for much of his youth, but he was introduced to wheelchair basketball at 15 years old when a team came for a showcase at his school. By the time he was 22 he was playing on Canada's national team.

Over almost two decades with Peter as a leader, Canada amassed three Paralympic gold medals, one silver, and countless wins in other international competitions before his retirement in 2012. Peter was a natural athlete, a polished scorer, and always one of the fastest players on the court, which he attributes to his spending the majority of his life in his chair.

Then in 2016, Canada held its first national para-badminton championship in Moncton, New Brunswick. Peter wanted to attend, more due to his long-time advocacy work promoting wheelchair sports than for an affinity for badminton, but he wasn't able because of his work schedule.

Peter won three Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair basketball.
Peter won three Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair basketball.(Getty Images)

Won 1st national title

However, the event came to his home province of B.C. the following year, and organizers asked Peter to help find athletes to compete. After a small handful played in 2016, Peter was among the more than 20 whom competed in 2017.

And like he'd done so many times on the basketball court, Peter finished as tournament champion.

"I know the guy who I played against, he was by far a better badminton player, but I guess mainly that I had better wheelchair skills. So that definitely helped me out in the end," said Peter, who works for Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, a research centre dedicated to improving the lives of people with spinal cord injuries. "That was my first badminton experience."

He was soon invited to play on Canada's national para-badminton team, but wasn't sure he was interested. Until the allure of international competition sparked inside him.

"The first country that we were going to, [the coach] said, 'oh we're going to Ireland. And I was like, 'oh, I haven't been there,'" he said.

Peter admits he "got his butt kicked" in Ireland, and he returned to B.C. to train. He worked with a coach at the Vancouver Lawn Tennis and Badminton Club, training five times a week, all with his sights set on competing in Tokyo.

Peter's memories from the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima are mostly about the comraderie and joy he found there. As a veteran athlete and former basketball star, Peter traveled the compound and was recognized everywhere he went. He even frequented the basketball court to cheer his friends on the Canadian team.

After their medal showing in Peru, Peter and Lapointe hope to shoot up in the rankings and qualify for Tokyo. But with Lapointe on the opposite side of the country in New Brunswick, practise was impossible. Then when it was time to travel to qualification tournaments, first Peter, then Lapointe, fell ill and couldn't attend. Finally, the pandemic meant that 2020, a year in which they intended to make a push in the standings, had no tournaments. Peter hasn't played badminton for a year.

Peter and para-badminton partner Bernard Lapointe, left.
Peter and para-badminton partner Bernard Lapointe, left. (Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Sports advocate

They failed to qualify for Tokyo. But that hasn't stopped Peter from continuing to use the sport for the betterment of those around him.

"I'm still a sports advocate in the para-sport world, a First Nation's advocate, within the [spinal cord injury] community. A peer counselor. A public speaker," he said.

Those identities are who Peter is, far more than his accolades. He's in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame, and has twice won the Tom Longboat Award for Indigenous Athlete of the Year. He isn't ruling out attempting to qualify for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, though now aged 48 he says it's more "up to his body" than it is him. Regardless, in the fields of basketball, badminton, advocacy, or whatever other path Peter chooses to tread, his legacy is set.

But winning isn't how he wants to be remembered.

"I guess just that I enjoy sports and have a lot of fun," he said in answer to how he wants to be remembered. "And try to do my best."